Michael O'Neill praises Liam Boyce after winning goal against New Zealand

Michael O'Neill praises Liam Boyce after winning goal against New Zealand

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill saw Liam Boyce go from last summer's odd man out to this June's headline act, but confirmed defender Craig Cathcart will miss next week's World Cup qualifier in Azerbaijan.

Twelve months ago Boyce was watching the start of Euro 2016, his country's first major tournament in 30 years, from a maternity ward while his daughter Scout was being born, having been omitted from O'Neill's squad in favour or Wigan's Will Grigg.

After plundering 23 league goals in the Scottish top flight, more than anyone else in the division, he is not only back in the international picture but at the front of the queue of forwards after netting his first international goal on Friday six minutes into a 1-0 win over New Zealand.

That is likely to have sealed his starting berth in Baku next Friday, yet Watford's Cathcart has joined the likes of Conor Washington, Jamie Ward, Corry Evans and Paddy McNair on the absentee list due to a knee problem.

"I'm delighted for Liam, I thought he played excellent, his link-up play was really good and it's a great goal," O'Neill said of his striker's 45-minute cameo.

"This season he's been consistent in not just his goal-scoring but his all-round play. You've got to remember Liam has had only three seasons as a full-time professional.

"Three years ago he was a Cliftonville player. His development has been great, a lot of that's down to himself, he recognised he had to be fitter.

"Technically his level is extremely high, you watch him and some of the things he does make you take notice of him. He's got fantastic feet, good finishing. He brings it back on to his weaker side and scores.

"I'm delighted for him because he's a genuinely good lad. I've got family members who are huge Cliftonville fans who have been telling me for years I should have him in the squad. Finally I relented!

"Your first international goal is important as a striker. Liam has the ability to score at international level, there's no doubt about that, because of the types of goals he scores.

"I think that the year that he's had, off the back of not coming to France, shows there's certainly a lot of character there. I think his career is just going to continue to progress."

One man who will not be in the XI in Baku is defender Cathcart, who returned to training with his country on Thursday but did not play against the All Whites the following day.

However, Gareth McAuley, who has spent all week getting treatment at West Brom, was at least back in Belfast on Friday and is expected to return.

"We won't have Craig Cathcart with us next week due to the injury," O'Neill added. "Gareth will be fine. He came in today. We have no concerns about Gareth's fitness. He'll start training with us on Sunday."

Northern Ireland were barely troubled by their opponents, ranked 95th in the world, until substitute Kosta Barbarouses struck a post in a second half where the All Whites were considerably improved.

Several members of the squad have been battling the effects brought about by the 30-hour flight, and New Zealand boss Anthony Hudson expects his team to improve as they build towards the Confederations Cup in Russia later this month.

"We've come away from the game against a team that is ranked much higher than us, and we're quite disappointed really, which is a positive sign," Hudson said.

"It's probably not a bad thing that we had the start we did, we want to make sure we're ready for Russia, this is what these games are for.

"I think we deserved a little bit more but it's going to help us for the tournament."

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